SEARCH

Opinion » Columns » Siddharth Varadarajan

Updated: June 23, 2010 00:02 IST

Building trust, one step at a time

Siddharth Varadarajan
Comment (3)   ·   print   ·   T  T  
File photo of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao with her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir in New Delhi.
The Hindu File photo of Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao with her Pakistani counterpart Salman Bashir in New Delhi.

India should strive for functional cooperation with Pakistan on the Mumbai terror trial. As the ‘front channel' picks up speed, so will the ‘back channel'.

The visits to Islamabad this week by Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Home Minister P. Chidambaram will provide India and Pakistan with the opportunity of erecting the scaffolding for a dialogue process that could eventually allow the two countries to make substantial progress on their core concerns.

India's position on the necessity of dialogue has held steady since the ‘Thimphu thaw' in April, suggesting all relevant political and institutional stakeholders are on board. The foreign secretary's speech to the Afghanistan-India-Pakistan ‘trialogue' on June 13 has added greater clarity and depth, especially on the question of trust-building. Terrorism continues to be the main obstacle but the Indian analysis of the interplay between terror, Pakistan's internal political dynamics and diplomacy is much more nuanced and sophisticated today than it was a year ago.

From the open-ended, maximalist demand of a complete shut down of terrorist infrastructure, the Manmohan Singh government is today looking for incremental progress across a range of vectors. The trial of the Lashkar-e-Taiba men accused by Pakistan of masterminding the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai is the most important of these. But India would also like to see forward movement on humanitarian issues, as well as on the cross-border and cross-Line of Control confidence building measures agreed by the two sides in recent years. Ms Rao's remarkable speech also flagged another metric, crucial to the fate of any dialogue process: “We also have to reaffirm the progress made through complex negotiations and dialogue through patient and unsung effort whether in the composite dialogue or back channel diplomacy, during this period.”

It was necessary for the foreign secretary to reiterate this point because neither the civilian government in Pakistan nor the post-Musharraf military establishment has so far shown a willingness to embrace the conceptual headway made by Islamabad and New Delhi between 2004 and 2008 on the Kashmir issue. The Peoples' Party government is perhaps wary of accepting the legacy of a dictator, and General Kayani — who may have silently gritted his teeth when Musharraf pushed his ‘out of the box' formula on Kashmir with his top commanders — thinks he has better cards to play today.

The truth is that there are no other cards. The ‘make borders irrelevant' approach is the only game in town and sooner or later all stakeholders in Pakistan will have to be reconciled to it. While Ms Rao did the right thing by flagging the importance of the back channel, India has to be patient and give the politicians and generals the time and space they need to reinvent the wheel. There is also merit in Pakistani foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi's remark that the back channel cannot make headway if the front channel is stuck. If trust is required to move the front channel again, the amount of trust needed to work the back channel is much greater.

At a recent Track-II meeting of the Pugwash group in Islamabad, Pakistani and Indian analysts and former officials had an animated discussion on terrorism, Afghanistan, water, Kashmir and the nuclear issue. While the two sides disagreed and argued on virtually every subject, the discussions on terrorism produced some clarity. The Pakistani side spoke of the legal difficulties in handling terrorism cases, noting that the high-profile trials of terrorists involved in the bombing of the Marriot hotel in Islamabad and the assassination of the Surgeon-General had unfortunately ended in acquittals. A well-regarded criminal lawyer from Lahore spoke of the difficulties surrounding the trial of the LeT men accused of attacking Mumbai and made a plea for better coordination between the Pakistani and Indian authorities in that case.

The Indian side responded by noting that the fight against terror was only partially a legal one. And that what is needed is a demonstration of political will, something that is lacking in Islamabad's feeble attempts to rein in anti-India terror groups. The Pakistani participants acknowledged this, but argued that their government was weak and couldn't afford to open up too many fronts at the same time. This, too, was disputed by the Indians. At the same time, there was general agreement that the legal case against the 26/11 accused had taken on a significance of its own, that the fragile dialogue process might not survive an acquittal and that, therefore, some coordinated effort needs to put in by both governments to ensure the best possible legal case is mounted against them.

Should meet frequently

In this context, one question Ms Rao and Mr. Chidambaram should seriously examine as they prepare themselves for their visit is whether the endless and somewhat gladiatorial exchange of ‘dossiers' with Pakistan is the most efficient way of going about prosecuting terrorists accused of perpetrating a heinous cross-border crime. Granted, there is a trust deficit. But if, instead of exchanging thick manila envelopes, the officials who work on these dossiers were to meet frequently, this may well provide for more efficient if not effective interaction.

India has bad memories of the short-lived Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism and is not in favour of its revival. But functional cooperation between the investigators who have probed the Mumbai attack case on both sides will help Pakistani prosecutors make a rock solid case against Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and the other LeT men now standing trial in a Rawalpindi anti-terror court. Depending on how that process works, more structured interaction between India's National Investigation Agency and Pakistan's Federal Investigation Agency should also be considered. This would be one concrete way in which the two sides try to build up a degree of trust.

Second, Pakistan will have to make every possible effort to keep in check provocateurs like Hafiz Saeed of the LeT and tamp down on terrorist infiltration from its territory across the Line of Control.

The third source of building trust is for India and Pakistan to prioritise humanitarian issues, especially the plight of juveniles and fishermen who end up spending a long time in each other's jails for crossing the border illegally because of the absence of proper diplomatic mechanisms. Activating the joint judicial commission to deal with the speedy release and exchange of prisoners who have finished serving their sentences is also an urgent necessity. Deepening existing cross-LoC CBMs, especially those relating to trade, should also be taken up immediately.

Fourth, the two sides should ensure that foreign secretary- and/or joint secretary-level discussions take place every month to resolve pressing concerns. Meetings at the official level must be held regardless of the state of bilateral relations and would be in addition to whatever formal dialogue structure emerges to address issues and disputes over Kashmir, Siachen, water or any other issue.

The goal of the upcoming round of talks as well as those between the two foreign ministers in July should be to prepare for the adoption of a structured, interim engagement process. Later this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will have an opportunity to meet again with his Pakistani counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York in September. If India is gracious enough to invite Yusuf Raza Gilani to attend the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi in October, that would provide another occasion for the two leaders to take stock of the relationship and settle on an appropriate dialogue structure. The problem of getting Pakistan back on track as far as the ‘soft borders' solution to Kashmir is concerned would still remain, of course. One proposal Prime Minister Singh could make at that juncture to demonstrate the benefit of cross-LoC arrangements would be for India and Pakistan to examine whether a single project on the Kishenganga-Jhelum-Neelum with traded electricity might be a better option than building rival hydroelectric projects.

Columnists Listing